Labor And Precision Ag

Last fall at a technical workshop for specialty crops, growers were asked what their top concern was for field production. They replied without hesitation — labor. At an international conference in Mexico this past spring, I was surprised to hear from representatives of South American countries that labor was their No. 1 problem. I had always assumed that the growing agricultural labor shortage in the U.S. was the result of stricter immigration enforcement.

So it was news to me that the labor shortage was in fact an international phenomenon. Given that agricultural labor now appears to be a global concern, it was not surprising that one of the keynote speakers at the 9th International Conference on Precision spoke about a “new mechanization system based on agricultural robots.”

Before plunging into my thoughts about robots in field production, I would like to broaden the discussion about labor in agriculture. I believe there is a quieter labor shortage going on in academic and industrial circles. The impressive amount of research reported upon at the recent International Conference on Precision Agriculture in Denver, CO, was only outdone by the remarkable range of topics. It is simply mind boggling how sophisticated precision agriculture has become in such a short period of time.

There was everything imaginable between the “fuzzy” approach for defining yield zones to the “hybrid artificial intelligence” approach for diagnosing diseases from imagery. But somehow, by the end of the conference, all the reported research efforts seemed to reflect a continued fragmentation of knowledge. In some eerie way, I felt a sense of stifled action amidst a wealth of knowledge. In other words, there seemed to be far too little qualified experts (i.e., labor) to bring all this new knowledge to growers.

This fragmentation of knowledge was implicitly addressed in the recent Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which is part of the new USDA Farm Bill. This initiative sought to address the various crop challenges, including the shortage of labor, by funding “systems-based, trans-disciplinary approaches.” By the government’s definition, trans-disciplinary is a “multi-discipline approach that brings biological and physical scientists together with economists and social scientists to address challenges in a holistic manner.” In simpler terms, the USDA Initiative was designed to bring the different research efforts into a single context for the benefit of growers and society in general. It is the government’s attempt to make more efficient use of intellectual capital (i.e., labor) and to make funded research more focused on growers’ needs.

More To Come

There is another impending labor shortage in the not-too-distant future. As the university educators and business professionals of the “baby boom” generation begin to retire in large numbers, there will be many vacancies. These vacancies will need to be filled by the next generation of graduates, who not only need to be technically proficient but also socially and economically minded. As society and agriculture compete for the same resources, the next generation of precision agriculturists will have to seek a balance and build production systems that are sustainable and environmentally responsible, while still being economically competitive. This is no small challenge for a shrinking pool of talent.

The impending shortage of intellectual capital will only accelerate the trend of growers taking on the responsibility of technology transfer. That is, while state extension services continue to be stretched thin of resources and work on other non-agricultural programs, more growers will be fending for themselves when making choices on new technologies. They will to some degree seek the help of extension, industry and friends, but in the end they will be personally responsible for acquiring new knowledge and applying it to their operation. In a nutshell, growers will, from now on, be working smarter not harder. And precision agriculture tools will be their labor saving devices.

Now, I wish to return to the robots in the field. The mechanization of agriculture as a solution for the increasing labor shortage is a noble goal. But as one grower reminded me, he did not need the “perfect” solution, only a “better” solution than the one he had today. I do not think agriculture can wait for the robot to replace the worker. Rather, today’s workers need to be equipped with “robot-like” tools to make their work easier and more efficient. Hand-held, cost-effective mechanized tools that result in more productive workers raise the intrinsic value of labor. More valuable labor justifies higher pay, which, in turn, attracts more people to the agriculture labor force. I believe, in the short run, it will be a lot easier to alleviate the labor shortage by finding creative ways to attract people to agricultural enterprises than to build technologies to replace them.

In closing, it is important to note that precision agriculture is part of the labor solution. Precision agriculture has been incrementally introducing technical innovations that have made crop production more efficient and viable in a changing world. For many of us in precision agriculture, working on these innovations has been a labor of love.

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